Chasing the Northern Lights in Norway without a guide

When I started to plan a trip to Norway, I tried not to see it as “A trip to chase the Northern Lights“. Aurora Borealis is a fickle lady, she shows up when she wants and there’s absolutely no guarantee you will have a chance to meet her. So I said to myself that Norway was wonderful country with stunning nature and plenty of things to discover (this proved to be true) and even if we weren’t lucky to see the Polar Lights, this would be a wonderful vacation. I offered this trip to Julien as a Christmas gift, and it was the best choice ever, since he’s so fond of adventure traveling and into-the-wild trips. We went to Norway on the 6th March and spent one week there.

Going forward, I can say we had a privilege to admire the Northern Lights two nights of three while staying in Tromsø, a Norwegian city in the Arctic Circle. It’s a great result, especially since they were very bright and long-lasting On the third night it was snowing and the sky was totally covered by the clouds – impossible to see the Polar Lights with this kind of weather.

After days of research on the web and blogs reading I decided not to join an organized Aurora chasing tour. The main thing about Aurora is this: nobody can guarantee that you will see it. Another important thing: there’s no reliable weather forecast for the Northern Lights. As you may know, their intensity depends on the solar activity, which in theory can be measured and predicted. In practice it might be no correlation between the level of the solar activity mentioned in the application and the fact of seeing beautiful Aurora Borealis. So even if the guide uses a special application, it doesn’t mean he knows more than you about the place where the Northern Lights can be most probably seen.

One night of Aurora hunting with a guide in Tromsø costs about 150 euros per person. It includes transportation, some snacks / hot beverages and advice on taking photos of the Northern Lights. We were two persons and weren’t sure we would see Aurora on the first night. Simple calculation shows that in this case we would spend around 600 euros for the guide! And if we needed the third night? The budget becomes enormous! To sum up, we weren’t ready for this investment and also I didn’t find it useful after reading some articles on the subject. Our experience proved it was a good decision…

IMG_9027

I should say it’s super hard to find reliable information about chasing the Northern Lights alone. Make a research on Google and you will have first three pages of results full of the blog articles written in collaboration with the tour agencies specialized at the Northern Lights chasing. In fact it’s just advertisement without any concrete tips. We had to learn important things about chasing Aurora from our own experience and here’s the result:

1. Vehicle

First thing you need is a car. The best way is to rent it directly in the Tromsø airport – there are many renting agencies. Make it sure the car is equipped with the winter tires and don’t take the smallest one – opt for medium size category (for example, Fiat 500 or Opel Corsa aren’t powerful enough and have a small clearance).

Many bloggers warn you against winter driving but we didn’t find Norwegian roads very challenging. You should just be careful, don’t drive too fast and don’t try to leave the road and play the cross-country.

2. Clothes

The famous “rule of layers” works perfectly – you should have a next-to-skin base layer, a pullover and a warm (really warm!) jacket, as well as two pairs of pants (thin ones and shell pants), two pairs of gloves, woolen warm socks and winter shoes (I wore Timberland and was satisfied). You won’t move a lot – in fact you stay in the car and only go out when you see Aurora, – so you don’t need to care about staying dry, but staying warm is crucial! First night I had only one pair of gloves and my hand were frozen while I was taking the photos… By the way, a warm hat is a must, too!

Little tip: don’t forget a thermos with hot tea and some biscuits, it helps a lot to keep the moral high!:)

3. Photo equipment

This might be the most difficult point for anyone who doesn’t have much experience with long exposure. The Northern Lights can’t be photographed with iPhone – you just don’t see anything on the picture. In order to get those bright green-violet colors you have to use a tripod and a good camera. What is a good camera? It’s the one which allows you to put the shutter speed on 10-15 seconds (long exposure) – basic time for a Aurora photos. With this shutter speed you will need a tripod (an obligatory equipment for long exposure photos).

Basically that’s all you need and here are my settings for the photos of the Northern Lights (you have to go MANUAL – automatic mode doesn’t work for Aurora photos):

  • Shutter speed – between 5 and 15 seconds (brighter Aurora is, less time you need to take a beautiful photos)
  • ISO – around 1600
  • Aperture (f) 2.8 – 3.2
  • Focus manual, adjusted to ∞ (infinity)
  • No flash!

It’s strongly recommended to check all the settings in advance, in the light of the day and with no rush. Believe me, in the middle of the night, with Aurora Borealis over your head you will be less likely to explore the possibilities of you camera!

All my photos were taken with my Nikon D750 with wide-angle lens (preferable but not indispensable).

4. Time

First of all, not any day is good for chasing the Northern Lights. The sky must be clear – it might be some clouds on it but you should see the stars on it, the main sign that the weather is Aurora favorable. One night it was snowing. We went to have a drive on the seashore in hope of seeing any trace of the Lights but the rule was confirmed to be true: no stars on the sky – no Aurora.

As for the timing, you can start looking for the Northern Lights from the moment when it gets dark (in March it was 7:30 – 8 p.m.) and continue until you are to tired to continue.

On the first night we were extremely lucky to see Aurora immediately after starting the chase, by 9 p.m.. We had to stop at the first parking spot and I started to take photos… By the way, it’s not easy to see the Polar Lights from the car when the headlight are on, but that time Aurora was so intense that we noticed it even while moving. Usually you have to park the car, switch off the lights and wait.

The second night it took us more time before we saw Aurora but it was even more gorgeous than the first one! We had to wait about two hours after arriving to the spot and the show started by 10 – 10:30 p.m.

You see, there’s no rule so one shouldn’t loose hope after an hour or two.

5. Place

This was the hardest point for us – nobody indicated exact spots where to wait for Aurora. The general (and evident) recommendation was to leave the city and go to the Kvaløya island (about 30 minutes by car) where the villages are rare and light disturbance is low. But WHERE exactly to go on Kvaløya – this question remained without the answer. How we resolved the problem? First, asked for our Airbnb host who was super nice and suggested us one-two spots. Second, during the day we drove around the island and noticed the places with the strong “Aurora potential”, which means far away from the villages and with the beautiful landscape.

To make it easier for you, here is a map of the best spots to see the Northern Lights near Tromsø. This is the kind of information which would be extremely useful for us while we were preparing our trip – and which I didn’t find on the web.

places to see the Northern Lights in Tromso
General map

As you can see, Tromsø is on the right and all the spots are located on the Kvaløya island. We did the spots No 1 and 2 on the first night and No 3 and 4 on the second night, but all of them aren’t very far away one from another, so you can probably check all of them during one night. It doesn’t mean you will see Aurora in all of them though – depends on your luck and weather conditions.

What I like about these spots is that the landscape of each one is different from the others, so hopefully you will be able take photos of the Northern Lights both over the mountains and over the sea (it’s nice to have a reflection on the photo!)

map where to see the Northern Lights in Tromso
Spot No 1: parkings along the road 862

IMG_8669øIMG_8648IMG_8671The first spot is rather a number of spots – the parking places along the road 862. It’s a long road between the mountains, with no villages in the area, so no light disturbance. To find it you have to drive from Tromsø towards Kaldfjord, pass by it and continue along the fjord, then turn on the left to continue on the road 862.

map where to see the Northern Lights in Tromso
Spot No 2: view on the mountains

IMG_8647IMG_8632Another cool spot is situated near the village called Ersfjordbotn. You can leave the car on the parking just before this village and walk a few minutes to find the best perspective.

map where to see the Northern Lights in Tromso
Spot No 3: mirror bay

On the second night we decided to find a place where we could see the reflection of Aurora in the water. During the day we found a really beautiful spot – a little bay with the calm water which looked like a mirror (spot No 3). To get there from Tromsø you should first drive to Kaldfjord, then take the road Fv57 and drive in the direction of Grotfjord. You leave this village on the right and continue along the fjord until the point indicated on the map above. In the evening we drove there and waited for an hour but the Northern Lights didn’t show up and we changed the place, moving to the spot No 4. Nevertheless I still think the spot No3 has a good potential if you happen to come there at the good moment – it would be such a beautiful place to see the Polar Lights!

map where to see the Northern Lights in Tromso
Spot 4: view on the fjord and the village Grotfjord

IMG_8941IMG_8971IMG_8938The spot No 4 offers a fantastic view over the fjord and the village called Grotfjord. It’s a perfect place to admire the Northern Lights! We were lucky to see the most incredible show over the sea with Aurora finding its way through several clouds.

Advice: to save your time stay directly on the Kvaløya island. There’s no hotels but you can easily find a house or a room on Airbnb. By the way, it will also save your money, since you’ll have a kitchen and will be able to prepare your meals. I can recommend these two Airbnbs where we stayed with Julien (one night in the first, two nights in the second) :

  • A room in a beautiful Norwegian house, very friendly host:

https://www.airbnb.fr/rooms/11540556

  • A separate house with one bedroom, with a view on the fjord:

https://www.airbnb.fr/rooms/21237329

Hope this article with help you to organize a trip to chase the Northern Lights! Let me know;) And if you have any questions, ask me in the comments – will be glad to share my experience!


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